Composition, Angles & Viewpoints


Composition is an aspect that is intrinsically a part of any work that operates within the boundaries of a frame, it is something that has often perplexed many artists. Numerous laws and theories relating to geometry and divisions of picture space have been explored over the years but it always remains something that refuses to be clearly defined. Terms like the "Golden Section" and "Divine Proportion" often emerge during conversations about the perfect way of structuring the picture plane but it seems as though the closer one gets to clarifying absolutes, the more blurred it becomes. After all, many pictures seem to ignore a number of unwritten laws and accepted conventions and yet, as a result, often work the better for it. I prefer to see composition as something akin to a lump of clay - no real form to speak of but instead something that can be moulded and manipulated to channel the aims and intentions of the artist according to his or her goals. In the following article, Spencer offers us an insight into the reasoning behind some of his photography and the way he composes his subject matter. Composition is something that can't really be taught, it's something that comes with practice, but as visual people you will have a good understanding of this. What I can do in this tutorial is give guidance and suggestions, describe how I go about composing my pictures and tell you how different angles and viewpoints will affect the final image. As Edward Weston wrote, "Consulting rules of composition before shooting is like consulting laws of gravitation before going for a walk". Although this is a little extreme, and if I whole-heartedly agreed with this I may struggle to get my fee for writing a tutorial on composition, it is sound advice. You can learn from this tutorial but do not take it as the law. Some of my best photographs have come from fleetingly looking through the camera and seeing something unexpected. Although the majority of my images are taken on large cameras fixed to tripods these days, I still look at various angles and move around my subject. It's often the final frame that I thought I'd try at the end of a shoot that comes back from the lab and turns out to be the image that the Art Director, or myself, choose. I suppose my point is that I use my own self-taught rules of composition, that I will try to go over here, and it is usually these that make a great image, but I try never to forget that there are different - and often better - ways of looking.

A Formal Composition

I tend to favour looking quite formally at my subjects, I enjoy the graphic nature of things when you make a clean, simple image. When applied to a landscape I will tend to view it straight on. What is of key importance to me when doing this is that the horizon line is as straight as possible and any clear vertical lines are also straight. I suppose the most formal thing to do is to get the horizon line central in the picture, but this is just a jump off point that really should not dictate how you photograph. Putting the horizon lower down may give you a big, elaborate sky, or higher up may give you depth and help to include important information in the foreground. If you start from a point (a tripod will make this easier) then make movements up and down and side to side and, gradually refining these movements, you should find your composition. Things to avoid are cutting off things at the edge of your frame and lining up objects so that they appear to grow out of something else. If something is surrounded by clear space it will help to lift it out of the image. Again, I must stress these are only guides because these are rules I have often thrown out the window, I have many an image that has clutter sprawling out of the frame in every direction. It is much the same to apply formal composition to a portrait or still life. The key again is to keep horizontal and vertical lines as straight as possible. To look at something formally, to me, suggests looking directly head on to the subject. Start from there and then move around or move the subject around.

The Informal

In brief, to photograph something informally can help to give the impression it was less 'staged'. You can still use ideas of formal composition when doing this. There is a huge amount of grey area in between the two. To give something a less formal look you can shoot hand-held and work freely around your subject. You can shoot through the foreground so it appears out of focus in the front of the picture. I don't really have any examples of this in my own work. I tend to use ideas like these and then formalise them in my composition. There is no right and wrong and the best way to find your own picture is to look through the camera and move. Don't feel you have to be standing up; kneel down, lie on the ground and climb up on things. Too many people just put a camera to their eye and forget that they are able to move.

Angles and Viewpoints

I'm going to try to really simplify some of the key ideas of angles and viewpoints in photography, which is no different to thinking of them in terms of painting or film. I don't really see any difference between the angle and viewpoint, which can be taken to mean the same thing, so forgive me for any cross-over.

If you look at something straight on you will get a very matter-of-fact picture of that subject. I enjoy doing this, especially in my portraiture work as I find my interest lies in the person and there is no need to use quirky angles. If you look up at something or someone it will appear big, as though it is looming above you. This is a good trick if you would like something to appear bigger and more menacing, even if applied to a small object. It is also a nice way to abstract things. Looking down onto a person or object will have the opposite effect and will make your subject appear small. However, when applied to a landscape you still achieve an affect of grandeur if you look down from, say, a mountain, as you can only appreciate the vastness of the landscape below. This would have a more calming effect than if you were to look up at the mountain. Your viewpoint can help you to separate objects in the frame. By going lower you can hide background information behind something and frame it with the sky, or by looking from above you can increase the space surrounding that object. Another tip is to use your lens to create a different view; a wide lens will separate out the background and foreground, whereas a standard or long lens will compact things.

When I approach a subject I often have a pre-conceived idea of what I'm trying to achieve and I find this helps my image-making. I have, if you like, a picture in my head that I then try and make a reality. This can sometimes lead to disappointment, but more often than not helps my process in making a successful picture. This does not work for everyone and it might be that you work better approaching something in a 'Zen-like' state - completely clear of preconceptions. Composition is something we all do in our own specific way and should serve to help show things in the strongest way. Avoiding clutter and confusion can help you to achieve this. Designing your angles and views around the feeling or mood you are trying to convey will then strengthen the ideas that are contained within the frame. You can use these ideas or forget them, what is most important is that you understand why you are trying to create an image and how you can use your individual way of seeing to show that.

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